In today’s Finshots, we narrate a tale of PFAS or forever chemicals and whether we can dump them forever.
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Last week, an Oxford-backed study discovered something alarming. The Artic ice around Svalbard, Norway was heavily contaminated with 26 types of chemical compounds. These compounds form a larger chemical group called PFAS (Per-and polyfluoroalkyl substances). So, when the ice melts, the PFAS in it could pass on from glaciers to inhabitant wildlife like fish, seals and polar bears. But if this alien term is making you nervous, then let’s break it down.
PFAS is a group of chemicals that is resistant to heat, stains, oil, grease and water. So it’s not foreign. Instead, you can find it everywhere — (coatings on) nonstick pans, stain-removing detergents, cleaning liquids and even cosmetics.
But it also has another special property. It contains a durable series of carbon-fluorine links, which are among nature’s strongest chemical bonds, making PFAS hard to break. Meaning, we could consume water, seafood or even cosmetics involuntarily and inject them into our bloodstream. And some of these could remain in the human body long enough to breed cancer, liver disease and other fatal maladies.
But, it could also work the other way around. We could pass these on to the soil and water through defecation, washing and waste disposal. And ultimately, they survive. They endure for years affecting nature for generations to come.
That’s exactly why they’re dubbed ‘forever chemicals’.
Now, forever chemicals didn’t emerge in nature. We made them. In the 1930s, we invented PFAS for use in waterproof and nonstick coatings. But its rapid development only increased in the 1960s after a fire incident on a US Navy aircraft carrier. Scientists quickly worked on making a foam mixture that rapidly extinguished the fire. PFAS’ properties helped it spread across the foam and it was quite effective against certain types of fire.
Even back in the 1980s CFCs (Chlorofluorocarbons) used in airconditioners and freezers were banned because of the damage they did to the ozone layer. And to replace them, we introduced lesser toxic chemicals like HFCs (Hydrofluorocarbons) and HCFCs (Hydrochlorofluorocarbons).
But today we’ve come to realise that these replacements release toxic compounds like TFA (Trifluoroacetic Acid) which are a part of the huge group of 12,000 chemicals that make up forever chemicals. That boils down to just one thing ― we need to replace these chemicals as well.
And we’re trying hard.
The European Union recently introduced a proposal to ban a certain group of chemicals, mixtures or articles that have anything over 25 parts per billion (ppb) or more of a particular PFAS or 250 ppb of PFAS in total. If it becomes law, it could take effect in the Netherlands, Germany, Sweden, Norway and Denmark. And that can be a big blow to industries heavily dependent on PFAS. So naturally, they’re unhappy.
You see, forever chemicals are everywhere. Even in chips that go into making batteries, cars, planes and more. Manufacturers have used them for decades. So a restriction could translate into a disruption of an already troubled semiconductor supply chain.
But, can’t we break the habit of being heavily dependent on PFAS, you ask?
Look, if we have to turn away from forever chemicals, we need alternatives. And finding these could be hard. At least that’s what some industry experts suggest. Take, for instance, PFAS-free or non-fluorinated firefighting foams. These could work in dousing out huge fires. But they may not be as effective as the ones that contain PFAS.
Another issue with alternatives is the cost. According to a report by the OECD (The Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development), PFAS-free alternatives can be used in the food packing industry as they can fight grease and water as efficiently as PFAS does. But the current market for these alternatives is less than 1%, making them hard to access.
The reason? Non-fluorinated alternatives are more expensive and if we use them in making microwavable containers or pet bottles, it could make these items pricier by about 11–32%.
Besides, whenever humans have come up with alternatives to replace predecessor toxic chemicals, more often than not we’ve realised that they turn out to be harmful in the long run.
Does that mean that there isn’t a way out?
Luckily the answer is ‘no’.
Last year, researchers at the Science journal came up with a new way to potentially break down forever chemicals. They mixed a group of PFAS chemicals with two inexpensive compounds at low temperatures. And they did find some success.
Currently though, this method is only confined to labs. But if they find practical applications in the real world, it could be great for the industry.
Also, the EU proposal only focuses on banning PFAS use that doesn’t comply with specific concentration limits. But if splitting their molecules to make them less toxic can help decontaminate water or soil, then it could be a real game changer. Manufacturers and recyclers can responsibly treat wastewater and other residues they release into the environment.
And that way we could be one step closer to winning the war over forever chemicals. Hopefully then, forever chemicals won’t last forever anymore.